The restless genius whose life reads like a novel
Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst (Harvard)
Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin (Viking)
Both these books give a powerful impression of how exhilarating and how exhausting it must be to write about Dickens, let alone be Dickens.
Sketches, stories, plays, journals and scripts for triumphant readings spill from his pen as well as his great novels; letters, notes and diaries run into volumes; criticism begins in his lifetime and articles, biographies and studies now overflow the library shelves; vehement arguments about his character, his life and his genius—or lack of it—still echo loudly, 200 years after he was born.
In Claire Tomalin’s onward-driving, hypnotically vivid life of the “inimitable” Dickens, the words “restless”, “hurrying” and “busy” hum through the pages. On one holiday at Gad’s Hill, she notes, “he tried to be lazy”.
But there was a novel to write, Great Expectations, and six readings to prepare, and then all his work was set askew by the death of his tour manager as well as that of his brother-in-law and old friend, Henry Austin.
Being lazy was not possible.
He was active even when writing. His daughter, Mamie, famously described him writing “busily and rapidly at his desk”, then suddenly jumping from his chair, rushing to a mirror and making “extraordinary facial contortions” before returning rapidly again to his desk and writing furiously for a few moments, then dashing to the mirror again.
“The facial pantomime was resumed and then turning toward, but evidently not seeing me, he began talking rapidly in a low voice.”
Collecting friends and characters
As a relief from writing he would walk for miles, extremely fast. He could not keep still and wherever he moved he collected friends, so that the pages of biographies, like the bustling London streets he described so well, and like his novels with their varied, sharp-elbowed characters, are inevitably crowded with people. His talent for friendship is clear from his bachelor days when he and his cronies went on long tramps, rides and river trips and spent the evenings smoking, drinking and partying ——“having a flare”, as he put it.
Being with Dickens is also to be with the illustrators Hablot Browne (“Phiz”) and John Leech, with WC Macready and Wilkie Collins, with the actor Charles Fechter, who gave him the Swiss chalet he installed as a writing room at Gad’s Hill, with the large, stammering George Dolby, who accompanied him tirelessly on his reading tours, with Hans Christian Andersen, who outstayed his welcome, and countless others.
But the great, central friendship, movingly described by Tomalin, was with John Forster.
Although there were times of irritation, coolness and positive fallings out, Forster remained his informal literary agent, reader, adviser and confidant until the end, taking up the role of first biographer, with which Dickens had entrusted him, only days after the funeral in Westminster Abbey in June 1870.
Dickens met Forster in the mid-1830s, when both were in their 20s.
In these years, in Tomalin’s words, “his pursuit of various goals was so energetic and he demonstrated such an ability to do so many different things at once, and fast, that even his search for a career had an aspect of genius”.
An alternative London
This period is the focus of Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s perceptive and original study, Becoming Dickens. He begins by asking us to imagine an alternative London, based on the steam-driven world of William Gibson’s The Difference Engine, a novel itself being a sort of “difference engine”, creating a fictional world.
The topical reference acknowledges the contemporary perspective from which we look at the novels and lives of the past, making narrative choices and judgments. The conceit also invites the possibility of alternative lives for Dickens himself, based on the different avenues he hurried down before he leapt into fame at the age of 25, first with Sketches by Boz and The Pickwick Papers, and then Oliver Twist. We see him as a reporter struggling with shorthand in Doctors’ Commons and in Parliament, as a would-be actor, stage manager and playwright, as a lawyer’s clerk and journalist.
Douglas-Fairhurst cites Dickens’s own words: “I know all these things have made me what I am.” But in looking closely at key moments, such as Dickens as a small boy, lost in the city, or slaving in the boot-polish factory at the age of 12, he also plays with a range of “what ifs?”, looking outward at the type of child Dickens might have been and at his fictional counterparts—Oliver Twist, Smike and Jo the crossing sweeper.
By the time of his first triumphs, both writers remind us, Dickens was already the father of a son, the first of his 10 children with Catherine Hogarth. Indeed, he seems to have been “married” in different ways to three Hogarth sisters—not only to Catherine but also to her younger sister, Mary, who died suddenly in his arms in May 1837, causing him such grief that he demanded to be buried beside her, and to the even younger Georgina, who joined the household at 15 and remained his housekeeper and friend until his death.
Becoming Dickens shows how Dickens created “alternative lives for Mary Hogarth” in the idealised young women who die young, like Dora in David Copperfield or Little Nell.
Tomalin also catches such fictional parallels but, because she opts boldly for the cradle-to-grave story, we meet the novels as they fall, like patches of calm water in a rushing river. In her perceptive discussions of the fiction, the emphasis is strongly on the characters. Linking the inhabitants of Dickens’s imagination to his life, she quotes the remarkable letter from Dostoevsky, who had read The Pickwick Papers and David Copperfield in prison.
He visited Dickens in London and remembered their conversation: “There were two people in him, he told me, one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite. From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters, from the one who feels as a man ought to feel I try to live my life. Only two people? I asked.”
There are many instances of Dickens trying to live his life well. His intense concern for the poor and outcast is typified by the incident with which Tomalin opens her book—his intervention in 1840 on behalf of Eliza Burgess, a servant girl accused of killing her newborn baby.
Equally, she shows us the ruthless Dickens, the man with the “military” glint, so evident in his dealings with his publishers, who so often started as angels and ended as villains.
Most of all, he hated his own mistakes. When Maria Beadnell, the passion of his youth, contacted him in 1854, he was initially fascinated.
Then they met. He found her fat, talkative and silly, punishing her as Flora in Little Dorrit, “overweight, greedy, a drinker, and garrulous to match”.
His feckless father and complacent mother, whom he blamed all his life for his boot-polish factory misery and for pursuing him with their endless debts, were packed off to Devon and mocked as the Micawbers. The sons who disappointed him were sent to the colonies and then, it seems, forgotten.
When his love for the young actress Ellen Ternan overwhelmed him, he turned viciously on Catherine and all who spoke up for her. This makes dark reading. Sad reading, too, for Tomalin firmly upholds her conclusion in The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, that Nelly, living quietly in France, bore Dickens a son who died in infancy.
In the early 1860s Dickens’s restlessness and anxiety reached a peak, taking him back and forth across the English Channel, probably to see Nelly, at least 68 times in three years. His last years were a blaze of physical and mental effort: what had been a walk, a stroll, a gallop, was now painful and difficult. In July 1864, when Our Mutual Friend was being serialised in monthly installments, he told Forster, in an image full of yearning, that he had “a very mountain to climb before I shall see the open country of my work”.
Even the accounts of his death have an unsettled, urgent feeling. Was he in Peckham with Nelly and rushed home to Gad’s Hill unconscious in a hackney cab to save his reputation? Or did he collapse in the dining room, talking incoherently, as Georgina Hogarth said? Georgina’s account, although muddled in details, had the authentic oddity of Dickens. “Come and lie down,” she told him. “Yes,” he replied, as if quoting a novel of his own, “on the ground.”
Charles Dickens: A Life is an intimate portrait despite its broad canvas. At times I wished there were more space to follow his writerly relationships, or to explore aspects of his life outside the family, such as his role as editor of Household Words and All the Year Round. But perhaps this desire is simply the result of Tomalin’s unrivalled talent for telling a story and keeping a reader enthralled: long as the book is, I wanted more.—